Getting outside can be tricky in a city. On some days it feels like the only time you see the sky is that halcyon gap between the tube station and your offices’ revolving doors.
As night falls we collapse, exhausted, on our sofas, surrounded by pot-plants and nature documentaries. But we’re not actually outside. And Harvard University says we should be, because being outside is great for improving our concentration, our depression will lift and we’ll generally be better people.
The average American spends 93 per cent of their time indoors, and another six per cent is spent in a car. It’s a little lower in the UK, where Brits spend 90 percent of their time indoors. But these figures are still shocking, considering the benefits you can get from being outside. Vitamin D is essential to live, and gives us healthy skin and bones. Children are sent to play outside at school (unless it’s absolutely tipping it down) as parents know how important being outside and foraging is for kids. And yet as soon as we get old enough to wield a computer and the patience to sit still for nine hours a day, the concept of heading outside goes out the window.
A report in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology found that just getting out for five minutes a day hugely boosted mood and even self-esteem, improving concentration. Whether that’s just standing outside the office in a weak ray of sunshine or making the effort to actually go for a walk or bike-ride, every little helps, and will certainly help your brain in the long run.
City dwellers may feel intimidated by the hassle of getting outside. Is that two trains or one to get to the start of a walk? But thankfully, our biggest cities often have parks that are large enough to at least block out the sound of traffic for ten minutes. Gunnersbury Park and Richmond Park are massive expanses of green space to the west of London.
There are also plenty of ways to get out of the city too, simply by using public transport. I wrote Outdoor London: Green spaces in and around the capital because I wanted to help Londoner’s add to their day to day experiences, easily. Every walk, every bike-ride, every kayak, and every swim featured in the book, is accessible by train. Conscious of people’s precious time, 95 per cent of the activities can be reached within an hour of a city centre train station. Nobody wants to be commuting all weekend.
Being around trees has also been proven to boost our memory. Participants in a University of Manchester study found that a group of students who spent time in an arboretum did better on a test than those who didn’t. For those who want to boost brain cells, Epping Forest is on the Central Line, with hours of trails for hiking and mountain biking. If you want some urban forestry, London is great for random pockets of wildlife.
After the docks around Surrey Quays and Rotherhithe were deindustrialised, the land became a seething mass of toxic soil and rubbish. However, it was transformed into a wildlife area called Stave Hill Ecological Area, which is now a pleasant park cross-crossed with paths, ponds and amphibians.
If you need somewhere to detress and get out of the 9-5 grind, then Walthamstow Wetlands is a watery boardwalk that feels wild, despite being minutes from a tube and high street. Coots and geese paddle around the choppy waters: if you look one way the sky and fields seem to stretch on for miles, but the other way you can see London’s shiny metal towers peek over the horizon.
Getting outside is simple in this city. Whether you’re after a muddy river walk in Wandsworth, or an afternoon stroll along a disused railway line in Zone 2, there are options across London. And frankly, what’s better than getting fit, emptying your mind, and getting a vitamin D hit at the same time?
Outdoor London is available to buy from 9 April 2019 at all good bookstores and online